This week’s subscription concerts of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra featured only British music that was composed in the last century; three very different works in terms of compositional approach and musical language.

Oliver Knussen’s The Way to Castle Yonder received its Sydney première at this concert, conducted by Robert Spano (who introduced the work to an Australian audience only last year, in Melbourne). It is a collection of orchestral interludes or “pot-pourri” as the composer calls it from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! I must confess that my listening experience was somewhat influenced by such storylines as “the pig is seen peeking out mysteriously from an arbour” but, to be fair, the music is composed with care, orchestrated well and, on this occasion, offered a good introduction to the next item, Sir Edward Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor.

Harriet Krijgh © Marco Borggreve
Harriet Krijgh
© Marco Borggreve

I was very much looking forward to hearing the young Dutch cellist Harriet Krijgh, making her debut in Australia. She has the reputation of being a musician with a compelling technique and a burgeoning carrier, but not only that: she had founded her own music festival in Austria at the tender age of 21, and will take over Janine Jensen’s role of Artistic Director of another festival in Utrecht.

Her tall, elegant figure exuded confidence as she walked on stage and, indeed, it was clear from the first bar that “the Elgar”, as this work is affectionately referred to amongst cellists, does not represent any technical problems for her. Yet, her playing left me unexpectedly dissatisfied. This was partly due to the sound she produced which, albeit warm and elegant, did not carry well in the hall. If sitting about twelve metres from her, I had difficulties deciphering several passages (for example, sections of the whimsical Scherzo movement or the extended semiquaver runs and triplet arpeggios of the last movement, marked forte), others in the back of the auditorium hardly had a chance. The orchestra played lightly and sensitively throughout, so the volume of the accompaniment cannot be blamed for this problem.

My main concern related to Krijgh’s interpretation of Elgar’s famously emotive, hauntingly beautiful score. Granted, this concerto can be heard peppered with excessive outbursts to the extent of sounding almost hysterical at times. Krijgh successfully avoided this trap but her reading of the work felt emotionally subdued and did not reveal a deep personal conviction about its message. An individual interpretation of a composition makes or breaks the musical experience; a myriad of minor changes to tempo, articulation, dynamics and other technical details can influence its emotional content, thus the way we hear it and think of it. While I was hoping for my ideal of the Elgar Cello Concerto to be provoked and challenged in some way, in the end, I did not feel this was the case and as a result was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto was conceived towards the end of World War I. The Symphony no. 5 in D major by Ralph Vaughan Williams was completed during the darkest months of World War 2, while the world was shocked by such events as the Battle for Stalingrad, and the unprovoked bombing of Pearl Harbour. How such turmoils of modern history could have left a composer seemingly completely unaffected is baffling. Whether this symphony is a text-book case of artistic escapism or something else, it is characterised by tranquil melodies, a consistent lack of emotional upheavals and harmonic conflicts, and in general, a curiously straightforward musical language.

The Sydney Symphony has not played this work for over 30 years, yet there was no uncertainty in their performance. They followed Spano’s clear direction with discipline, splendid dynamic contrasts and a warm tone which remained pleasant even in the softest ranges.

The calm, precisely controlled conducting of Spano worked splendidly in the Knussen work’s occasionally difficult rhythms and frequent tempo changes. There was no particular need for complex hand gestures in the Vaughan Williams symphony, for tempos seldom change within its movements and their unending emotional stream flows gently, rising only on rare occasions to a genuine orchestral fortissimo. The simplicity of this score is such that at the beginning of the second movement (Presto misterioso), the audience has to endure over 80 bars of mysteriously imperturbable melody fragments consisting purely of the notes of a C major scale before the relief of the first accidental (sharp or flat sign, signalling the black keys on a piano keyboard) is put out.

Aaron Copland, never known for being short of a quip, opined that “listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for 45 minutes.” Harsh words, but I understand his point.